As a history graduate and a film lover I’ve long been aware of the complex relationship between cinema and the past. Films can reflect our history, the way we reconstruct a story of the past from the evidence around us. They can also shape popular understanding of history, as shown by both Hollywood blockbusters and overt propaganda.
When we discuss the history depicted in a film we often focus on how it shapes our understanding of specific events. But there is another layer to the way that historical films shape our perspective, because each film, like every other work of historical storytelling, also contains and transmits an implicit thesis on the nature of history.
Braveheart (1995) – great men in bold colours
Medieval epic Braveheart is notorious for the liberties it took with historical events, liberties which used to send me, as a scholar of the period, into extended and angry rants. But while the passage of time might make it easier to overlook the film’s factual flaws, focusing on those flaws also distracts from the film’s broader message on the sweep of history.
Braveheart is an intensely old-fashioned depiction of history, and of the world we live in. There are stark divisions between good and evil, with clear right and wrong rather than complex moral and political issues at stake. Events are dictated by the actions of great men, not social movements. This is history as something simple and unambiguous, a morality play. You are either on the side of the angels or that of the demons, and though you can cross back and forth you cannot hold a more complex position.
Lincoln (2012) – one issue at a time
Lincoln, the story of a president’s battle to end slavery, wants to show us a more nuanced thesis, yet remains noticeably simple. There are great social movements at play, but they are enacted through, and led by, a single great man. His opponents are not evil, but neither are they made particularly sympathetic. Their motives and concerns are given little screen time.
More than this, Lincoln is single-issue history. True, the issue of slavery is approached from different angles, particularly those of individual liberties, the cost of war and the integrity of the American republic. But slavery is still the issue of the film. This alone is at stake, this alone is being decided.
Lincoln nods its hat to historical complexity, but as befits a film about storytelling it still narrows history down to a single narrative, in which great events have a single cause, be that cause slavery or be it Abraham Lincoln.
Agora (2009) – the pain of complexity
Agora, perhaps more than any other film, explores a vision of history as complexity and chaos. Depicting life in late Roman Alexandria, it intertwines a variety of narrative strands – a philosopher’s quest to understand the universe; the rise of a hard line Christian church; battles for freedom and for political stability; personal relationships twisted by political and social power. While some narrative strands are more prominent than others, none is thrust forward as the sole central issue. Science matters. Philosophy matters. Religion and politics matter.
This is history as complex characters and movements. While the Christian cause is perhaps the least sympathetic in the film, we are shown a strand of moral good within it, with the charity the church practices and the liberty it promises to slaves. Every character is a mixture of many motives, flaws and virtues. Every event arises from the interplay of different motives, movements and personalities, not one single person’s agenda.
Pick your own thesis
By now you’ve probably realised that I favour the Agora view of history. But that’s not the point that I want to make.
Whatever your perspective on history, be aware of the way that it is depicted on film. Notice the agenda each historical film puts forwards, not just on the issues at stake within the film but on the nature of history. To forget history is to repeat its mistakes. To ignore its nature is to wilfully forget.